The Orderliness of the True Dhamma
Saddhamma-niyāma Sutta (AN 5:151)
“Monks, endowed with five qualities, even though listening to the True Dhamma, one is incapable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities. Which five?
”One holds the talk in contempt.
“One holds the speaker in contempt.
“One holds oneself in contempt.
“One listens to the Dhamma with a scattered mind, a mind not gathered into one [anek’agga-citto].1
“One attends inappropriately.”
“Endowed with these five qualities, even though listening to the True Dhamma, one is incapable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities.
“Endowed with (the) five (opposite) qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities. Which five?
“One doesn’t hold the talk in contempt.
“One doesn’t hold the speaker in contempt.
“One doesn’t hold oneself in contempt.
“One listens to the Dhamma with an unscattered mind, a mind gathered into one [ek’agga-citto].1
“One attends appropriately.”
“Endowed with these five qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities.”
1. Ek’agga is often translated as “one-pointed,” taking agga as meaning “point.” Because a mind in concentration is said to be in a state of ek’aggatā, or one-pointedness (MN 43; MN 44), it has been argued that if one’s awareness in concentration or jhāna is truly one-pointed, it should be incapable of thinking or of hearing sounds. However, this interpretation imposes too narrow a meaning on the word ek’aggatā, one that is foreign to the linguistic usage of the Canon.
a) To begin with, agga has many other meanings besides “point.” In fact, it has two primary clusters of meanings, in neither of which is “point” the central focus.
The first cluster centers on the fact that a summit of a mountain is called its agga. Clustered around this meaning are ideas of agga as the topmost part of something (such as the ridge of a roof), the tip of something (such as the tip of a blade of grass), and the best or supreme example of something (such as the Buddha as the agga of all beings). AN 5:80 plays with these meanings of agga when it criticizes monks of the future who will “search for the tiptop flavors (ras’agga) with the tip of the tongue (jivh’agga).”
The second cluster of meanings for agga centers on the idea of “meeting place.” A hall where monks gather for the uposatha, for example, is called an uposath’agga. The hall where they gather for their meals is called a bhatt’agga.
Given that the object of concentration is said to be a dwelling (vihāra), and that a person dwells (viharati) in concentration, this second cluster of meanings may be the more relevant cluster here. A mind with a single agga, in this case, would simply be a mind gathered around one object, and need not necessarily be reduced to a single point.
b) But even more telling in determining the meanings of ek’agga and ek’aggatā are the ways in which they are used in the Canon to describe minds.
i. Even if we translated ek’agga as “one-pointed,” this sutta shows that in an everyday context a one-pointed mind is not so pointy that it cannot think or hear sounds. If it were, one would not be able to hear a Dhamma talk or apply appropriate attention—asking questions in the mind related to the four noble truths (MN 2)—while listening. This would defeat the purpose of listening to the Dhamma and get in the way of “alighting on assuredness.”
ii. As for the way in which the term is used in describing the mind in concentration, a passage in MN 43 defines the factors of the first jhāna as these: “directed thought, evaluation, rapture, pleasure, & one-pointedness of mind.” It has been argued that this statement contains a contradiction, in that the compilers of MN 43 did not realize that one-pointedness precluded thought and evaluation. But perhaps they knew their own language well enough to realize that ek’aggatā—being gathered into oneness—did not preclude the powers of thought.
iii. The standard similes for right concentration (DN 2; AN 5:28; MN 119) all emphasize that the mind in right concentration is aware of the entire body. To get around this fact, those who propose that a one-pointed mind can be aware of only one point interpret “body” in these similes as meaning a purely mental body, but that would mean (a) the similes’ emphasis on pervading the entire body would meaningless if the mental body is reduced to a small point, and (b) the Buddha was extremely sloppy and misleading in his choice of similes to describe concentration. If the purpose of jhāna is to blot out awareness of the body, why would he choose a simile for the fourth jhāna in which the entire body is pervaded with awareness?
As MN 52 and AN 9:36 show, the ability to use appropriate attention to analyze any of the four jhānas while still in the state of ek’aggatā is an important skill in reaching awakening. So it’s important that the term not be defined in so narrow a sense that it would obstruct any efforts to master that skill and gain its benefits.